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Tracy Jonkman, left, and Nate Watters, right, in Keepsake Cidery’s tasting room. The Bridgewater Township Board of Supervisors backed a Conditional Use Permit allowing Keepsake to serve large volumes of customers. (File photo/southernminn.com)

After a storm of controversy, Bridgewater Township supervisors signed off on a new Conditional Use Permit that will help to secure the future of a thriving small business.

Since opening south of Dundas six years ago, Keepsake Cidery has become one of the most prominent businesses in the township. The small, family-owned business makes its product the old fashioned way, with wild apples hard-pressed on-site and aged into fine cider.

The Cidery is the brainchild of Nate Watters and Tracy Jonkman, two farm kids who never lost their love for where they grew up. Watters grew up in upstate New York’s apple country and was raised around the fruit from an early age, selling apples from a neighbor’s tree for his first job. Jonkman grew up on a farm in the Upper Midwest, but went to school to become an emergency medicine doctor. While deeply involved in the business, she also still works helping patients in the ER and was elected to the Bridgewater Township Board earlier this year.

Keepsake’s sizable orchard and tasting room are located in an isolated part of the township, off a gravel road and alongside the Cannon River Wilderness Area, a secluded stretch of the river owned and operated as a county park.

Accordingly, Watters and Jonkman had to apply for special permits to accommodate the business when they built it. While they originally hoped to receive a CUP, they ended up receiving an Interim Use Permit instead.

The IUP included some restrictions, including a limit that no more than 50 cars be parked on the farm at one time and that events be held on the weekend, from May thru December. Watters said the agreement wasn’t perfect, but as a first try, that was to be expected.

“We understand that some of these things are a work in progress as the township and county learn what works,” he said. “At the time there was no precedent in Rice County for what we were doing.”

As the business grew, the traffic at the rural property increased as well. Keepsake took steps to limit the intrusion of noise, traffic and parking onto neighboring properties, including fixing up its driveway and posting no parking signs where appropriate.

All in all, Township Board Chair Glen Castore said that as far as the township was aware, the agreement was working reasonably well. Until last year, Castore said that no neighbors had reached out to the township to complain.

While Castore said that township officials had no reason to believe that Keepsake had systemically violated the IUP, Jonkman and Watters decided that based on what they had learned requesting a new CUP could make sense.

The township’s Planning and Zoning Commission sprung into action, producing the proposal that passed 3-1 Tuesday. However, not all neighbors were pleased with that decision, nor was it unanimous.

Under the CUP, limits on cars are gone but Keepsake will be able to host up to 150 people, four days a week, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Six times a year, Keepsake will also be able to host “special events” with up to 250 people.

Sharon Kilanowski, Keepsake’s closest neighbor, showed up with her father Mike Breckinridge to strongly contest the CUP. Breckinridge and his wife Barb developed the quarter century old house before selling it to Sharon and her husband Adam recently. While saying that he had respect for Watters and Jonkman and their efforts to build a successful business, Breckinridge claimed that Keepsake had repeatedly violated its IUP. He claimed that “hundreds” of cars often were at the site, parking all over the place.

“There’s often an incredible amount of noise and traffic on what I consider this absolute piece of heaven,” Breckinridge said. “With the writeups in the city papers, the crowds have gotten out of control.”

Kilanowski raised concerns over live music as well. While it was not a violation of the IUP, she expressed frustration that Keepsake had often invited bands to play on the site, leading to mass noise pollution that would be acceptable under the CUP.

She added that Keepsake’s efforts to improve its driveway had in fact made the situation worse. With the smoother surface, she said that drivers feel more comfortable taking the driveway at higher, even unsafe speeds.

“From 9-9 four days a week, I’ll be living in the inner city,” she said. “Cars from Minneapolis will be driving 40 mph down my driveway.”

Watters asserted those claims were wildly exaggerated and said that Keepsake has done everything it could to limit traffic and noise. He also stated that most neighbors he had talked to were supportive, in contrast to the claims made by Kilanowski and Breckinridge.

Still, the concerns resonated with Supervisor Kathleen Kopseng, who said that she too can sometimes hear the bands at Keepsake from far away. She also said that the high volume of traffic poses a potential public safety issue.

While she voted no, Kopseng stated that she was not unalterably opposed to granting some sort of CUP. However, she said that much more discussion should be had and pushed back against Castore’s assertion that the lack of complaints from neighbors suggested a lack of opposition.

“There were just enough things, as I went through this closely the full IUP, that gave me pause,” Kopseng said.

While Jonkman abstained, the other three supervisors came down in support of the CUP, securing its passage. But while he pushed hard for the CUP’s approval, Castore said that he wants to see the township’s approach to CUPs change in the future.

“Normally we grant an IUP or a CUP and we step away from it,” he said. “What I propose is that if you see problems, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be an outright violation, the township should get involved.”

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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